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Nuclear Propulsion for a Manned Mission to Mars. Robert Sheldon and Rod Clark Grassmere Dynamics, LLC NSSTC, Huntsville, Alabama Apr 22, 2010. Abstract.

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Nuclear propulsion for a manned mission to mars

Nuclear Propulsion for a Manned Mission to Mars

Robert Sheldon and Rod Clark

Grassmere Dynamics, LLC

NSSTC, Huntsville, Alabama

Apr 22, 2010


We discuss a novel dusty-plasma fission-fragment nuclear rocket that can provide both thrust and electricity for a mission to Mars, substantially improving over the 40+ year old NERVA. It is able to achieve higher power (~5GW) than NERVA (~1GW) through its innovative dusty core that cools very efficiently by radiation. It is able to achieve higher specific impulse (~100,000s) than NERVA (~800s) or DS1 (~10,000s) by emitting fission fragments at a few percent of the speed of light where the charged dust is confined by strong magnetic and electric fields, which also transfer the thrust. It uses modern neutron moderators that are about 100 times more effective and lighter weight than NERVA, for a "wet" mass of a few tons. It can produce electricity directly from the charged fission fragments at about 85% efficiency, with less thermal radiators than the corresponding Carnot process of "nuclear-electric". The environmental impact of radioactive exhaust for starting the rocket in low-earth orbit amounts to approximately one years worth of natural C14 production, depending on space weather. And finally, it uses proven HEU or Pu reactor fuel, which other than its processing as dust, is readily available. In conclusion, this technology may have broken through the twin barriers of cost and safety, permitting astronauts a speedy transport to and timely return from Mars.


  • The Dream of Mars

  • The Necessity of Nuclear

    • Insufficiency of Chemical

    • Impotence of Ion Electric

    • Advantage of Nuclear

  • The Nuclear Options

    • Propulsion

    • Power

    • Hybrid

  • The Dusty-Plasma Fission-Fragment Rocket

Nuclear propulsion for a manned mission to mars


Rocket Equation

  • Vexhaust= Isp * g [d/dt(MV) = 0]

  • dV = Vexhaust* log( final mass / initial mass)

    Material Isp Limitation (more=better)

    Solid fuel 200-250 fuel-starved

    LH2/LOX 350-450 fuel-starved

    Nuclear Thermal 825-925 efficiency-starved

    Gas Core Nuclear ~2,000 efficiency-starved

    MHD < 5,000 energy-starved

    Ion < 10,000 energy-starved

    Fission Fragment ~1,000,000 fuel-starved

    Matter-Antimatter ~10,000,000 fuel-starved

    Photons 30,000,000-all-starved

Nuclear propulsion for a manned mission to mars


30-day computed w/o orbital dynamics

Mi mf comparison
Mi / Mf Comparison











Oort Cloud








Xe Ion


Fission Frag 1Ms

Fusion Frag 2Ms

Nerva nuclear thermal circa 1968
NERVA nuclear thermal circa 1968

1.5GW Pu239 reactor cooled with GH2 run for >30 minutes, stopped and restarted without incident at Jackass Flats NV. One version made 4.08GW for 12 minutes. Held the record almost 30 years for the highest power nuclear reactor on Earth.

-Mass (dry) = 34 ton

-Diameter = 10.5 m

-Thrust = 867 kN in vacuum

-ISP~820second @1.2GW

Could place men on Mars by 1985. Cancelled in 1972.

Jpl nuclear electric concept
JPL Nuclear-Electric Concept

Shielding, Fuel

Shield shadow terminator


Power Lines, Coolant tubes

Cooling Fins


Ion Thrusters

Hybrid nuclear
Hybrid Nuclear

  • If you need NTR to get to Mars, and you need electric power to stay on Mars, why not use that electric power in orbit to generate high Isp thrust, and save on fuel?

  • Combining to two reactors also allows savings on weight, moving the baseline downwards. What could be the problem with that?

  • Heat.

  • Nuclear power plants use Carnot-cycle conversion of heat to electricity at about 40%, but efficiency is strongly dependent on the “cold” temperature: ==>(Ti – To)/Ti And space has only radiative cooling ==> σT4

Nuclear electric heat problem
Nuclear-Electric Heat Problem

  • Nuclear-Electric converts nuclear energy to heat, heat to electricity, then electricity to propulsion. The overall efficiency isn’t very high. There’s abundant nuclear power, so low efficiency can be tolerated, but now we also have much heat to remove, which in space can only be done with radiators.

  • Estimates from 1987 were that radiators were as twice as heavy as the nuclear power plant itself—60T compared to 30T.

Direct conversion fission fragment power
Direct ConversionFission Fragment-->Power

Fission Fragments have ~2MeV /nuc of energy and about 26 + charges. Rings are biassed at higher and higher + Voltage. Moving current uphill is like charging a battery. ~85% efficiency.

Venetian blind converter
Venetian Blind Converter

Collector shapes can be optimized for collecting “at rest” FF.

Hybrid ff rocket neri
Hybrid FF Rocket--NERI

Coils at each end of the FF reactor control how much FF go into thrust, and how much into electricity.

Operating the nuclear reactor at max efficiency, we can adjust thrust and electricity separately.

Heat the hidden killer dust the best protection
Heat: The hidden killerDust: the best protection

  • So the problem with space nuclear propulsion is NOT raw power, but how to eliminate waste heat. The more efficiently we can generate thrust, the less waste heat produced.

  • Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we have a non-thermal nuclear propulsion minimizing waste heat?

  • Yes. By making the fuel into dust.

What is a dusty plasma
What is a dusty plasma?

Charged dust + plasma = a “plum pudding” Coulomb crystal, or as Cooper-pairs in BCS theory. Note surface tension & crystalline interaction.

Auburn University University of Iowa

Cool dust
Cool Dust

If the dust grain is less than 1 micron, the FF escape nearly 100% without “friction”. ==> No heat.

Can ff escape the dust cloud
Can FF escape the Dust Cloud?

Since we need a total amount of U235 to achieve criticality, how do we collect enough dust grains without heating them?


Nuclear fuel suspended as dust
Nuclear Fuel suspended as dust

  • Can the dust be suspended while the rocket is accelerating?

  • Yes, 1g is typically no problem for labs.

  • Will B-field change the dusty-plasma dynamics?

  • Yes, but not much.

The dust trap

Arc discharge on 3μ SiO2 dust grains charges them negative. Probable charge state on dust is –10,000 e/grain.

They are trapped in a positive space-charge region adjacent to ring current. The RC is formed by -400V DC glow discharge on NIB magnet, streaming electrons ionize the air, maintain the RC. Phase-space mismatch of streaming electrons and trapped ions produces the space charge. Highly anisotropic B-field contributes as well.

The Dust Trap

Can a reasonable b field confine ff
Can a reasonable B-field confine FF?

Toroidal multipole magnetic trap
Toroidal MultipoleMagnetic Trap

More on confinement
More on confinement .

  • B=0.6 T over 1-meter bore is an awesome energy density = pressure. If we could do that we’d be flying a fusion reactor! Instead, we use a multipole magnet toroid, such that the field strength drops as |R – R0|-N , with N>2, from the wall.

    • This has a magnetic gradient near the wall, producing a strong mirror force, “insulating” the wall from fission fragments.

    • By Liouville’s theorem, n/B=constant, so fission fragment density peaks at the wall, low in the dusty plasma center. E.g, one pass through dust.

  • Because the escaping fragments are positive,  net negative charge in the dust cloud. An ambipolar electric field (=some fraction of MeV) develops at edge as well, confining the fragments.

    • Proper treatment will require full kinetic simulations.

Discharging dust
Discharging Dust

  • Won’t negatively charged dust discharge from thermionic emission? And won’t 100nm dust have huge corona discharge current?

  • Yes, but not as much as one might think.

Black line is u235 with lih moderator red line is pu239 with c13 d moderator

Black line is U235 with LiH moderator. Red line is Pu239 with C13-D moderator.

Size of Critical Cloud

Nuclear pollution
Nuclear Pollution? with C13-D moderator.

  • Since radioactive fission fragments are emitted from the rocket, how dangerous is this for the Earth?

  • From the two missions analyzed, we calculated how long each rocket is withing 10 Re of the earth, and how much fuel is burned during this time.

    • 30 day mission to Mars 240 g U235 ~ 1 mole

    • 550 AU mission = 720 g U235 = 3 moles

    • 0.5 Lightyr mission=3.7 kg U235 = 15 moles

  • We modelled the transport through the radiation belts, ionosphere & stratosphere and decay lifetimes of 60 decay products. Short-halflife products decay before reaching the surface of earth. Long-halflife products produce almost no radioactivity. We list radioactive products that make it to Earth from 1 mole U235, both by number and curies.

Modelled pollution from 1mole u235 p239
Modelled Pollution with C13-D moderator.from 1mole U235/P239

  • By moles (total radioactivity ~10% of U235)

    • Rb87 .1 = 0.1 uCu

    • Sr90 .2 = 180 Cu

    • Cs135 .3 = 0.4 mCu

    • Cs137 .3 = 360 Cu

    • Nd144 .05 = 1 pCu

  • By Curies fast diff slow diffusion

    • Sr90 180 180

    • Ru108* 20 11 Cosmic Ray production

    • Cs137 360 360 C14 = 266 Cu/yr

    • Ce144 190 77

    • Pm147* 230 93

Nuclear propulsion for a manned mission to mars

Concept with C13-D moderator.

  • Field coils on the end control thrust & power

  • Pu239 dust

  • Moderator is lightweight C13D

  • Multipole permanent magnets on sides contain fragments

Mars mission concept
Mars Mission Concept with C13-D moderator.

35MW Fission Fragment Rocket

Conclusions with C13-D moderator.

  • The 2009 Design Reference Architecture 5.0 chose a “slow” mission to Mars because there really was no alternative. This led to an enormous program of life support for several years, artificial gravity, and massive LEO launch costs.

  • A viable hybrid nuclear rocket that lowers the weight and cost, enables a fast visit which increases safety, is both more likely to be funded, and more likely to succeed.

  • At about 20 MW, this design is a very conservative nuclear power design, and easy to implement.

  • The hurdle at this time is scientific, “can a dusty plasma rocket actually work at 20MW?”